There’s something wonderful about wrapping your mouth around a foreign word. You fumble with the unfamiliar syllables but you eventually produce something, understandable or not.
The first couple attempts at pronouncing sounds you’ve never had to make will always be a struggle.
These are the first shaky steps into learning an unknown language.
At first another language — its words, its grammar, its syntax — might seem indecipherable. Even the simplest of phrases are difficult to grasp and you find yourself constantly stuttering and searching for words, feeling like an idiot. Simply figuring out how to ask where the bathroom is makes you feel like a success.
But as you continue to practice, words become more natural and phrases begin to roll off your tongue with ease. This progression often happens without you realizing it is happening.
Learning a new language is something anyone can do, no matter how daunting the task may seem. It takes time and a great deal of commitment to achieve but it’s one of the most useful and rewarding things you can do.
Anyone who has ever learned another language knows that all it takes is one embarrassing mistake and the lesson will be ingrained forever in your brain. One of the most liberating things about learning another language is the ability to make mistakes. You don’t have to be perfect, and when you do make mistakes there is always someone willing to help you. The most important thing is to try new words and new expressions. It doesn’t matter how silly you sound, because your effort will be rewarded.
It’s easy to think that by speaking English you don’t need to speak any other languages. After all, everyone speaks English, right?
It is important to remember that the majority of people who speak English speak it as a second language. That means these people speak at least two languages while you speak a measly one.
Millions of people have learned a language that allows them to communicate with you, so why shouldn’t you do the same? It’s polite to return the favour. It is unfair and incredibly limiting to expect the entire world to learn English. English isn’t widely used because it’s the best language, whatever that might mean. It’s only natural that people want — and need — to learn the language of the world’s dominant economic power, which has been the United States for several decades.
That’s not to say that English isn’t a great language. It is. But every language has its strengths and weaknesses — things it does well and things it could do better. This is the reason certain words and meanings are lost in translation; other languages don’t have the tools to express the exact same meanings.
Untranslatable words can be found in every language, words too specialized to be exchanged for another without losing the spirit of the original. The French have “l’esprit d’escalier” (thinking of the perfect comeback too late), Czech’s “litost” (a state of agony and torment created by the sudden understanding of one’s own misery) or the Yaghan tongue twister “mamihlapinatapei” (a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that neither one wants to start).
You can try to find an equivalent word in another language but you’ll soon realize it’s impossible as nothing has quite the same essence. The more you delve into other languages the more you realize just how different each language is.
Just as each language is individual, so is the culture of the people who speak it. Learning another language opens up the possibility of relationships with people from different cultural backgrounds, people you may otherwise never have had the pleasure of knowing. It is impossible to really get to know someone if you can’t speak to each other. Gestures and grunting will only get you so far.
It’s also impossible to completely understand a culture without understanding its language. By understanding another language, cultural barriers are broken down; things that at one time seemed foreign and strange are now commonplace and ordinary.
It doesn’t matter if you speak your new language like a kindergartener would; words are words, as rudimentary as they may be.
Learning another language is challenging but the knowledge it brings opens you up to different places, different people and different ways of living and thinking. If you listen there is a language that will speak to you even though you don’t understand the words (yet).
Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf